Late in the summer of '55, having just begun to prowl the cigar-lit grandstands and sun-dried aprons of Chicago racetracks, I awoke one morning to find myself in the unblinking eye of the wildest, woolliest sporting storm to blow through Chicago since...well, as my father used to say, since Dempsey and Tunney fought the Long Count at Soldier Field in the fall of '27.
Swaps and Nashua were at it again.
The colts, two of the finest 3-year-olds ever to appear in the same year, were set to battle at old Washington Park, Chicago's South Side course, in what was being whooped along as the greatest match race on the planet since Seabiscuit and War Admiral ran at Pimlico on Nov. 1, 1938, the epochal clash of regions, lifestyles and social classes. But that had been 17 years, a Great Depression and one long world war ago.
A few weeks before the match, as I hung on the outside fence near the [1/16] pole at Washington Park, suddenly there he stood, Swaps, all 1,000 gleaming pounds of him, with a face as finely chiseled as a cameo, gliding out of the grandstand shadows and into the afternoon sun. He had been brought out between races to parade for the folks. His rider, Bill Shoemaker, guided him to the outside rail. "Be gentle with him," said Shoemaker. "He won't bite you." Swaps dropped his nose over the fence. As hands reached up and stroked his soft muzzle, he pricked his ears. His eyes, brown and gentle as a doe's, flicked over the faces looking up at him. And then, slowly, he backed up, turned and walked away. It was only a moment, but there began the setting of the hook that has kept me tethered to the sport for nearly 50 years.
By the end of the week I had slipped into my wallet a small picture of Swaps that remained there, ultimately in lamination, for nearly three decades (until a thief lifted my wallet the night of a prizefight at Madison Square Garden). Even today, almost 50 years later, the race is nearly as painful for me to watch on grainy film as it was in real time. Vaulting from the gate under the staccato pop of Eddie Arcaro's whip, Nashua sprinted in a wide-eyed panic to the lead, stole the march on Swaps, a horse that everybody thought was faster, repelled all challenges down the backside, then slowly pulled away around the final bend. He won off in a flourish by 6� lengths.
My memories of that surreal afternoon resurfaced like old flotsam at a recent screening of Seabiscuit, directed by Gary Ross and based on the best-selling book by Laura Hillenbrand, and not just for the eerily similar themes that the Seabiscuit-War Admiral match race engendered but also for the even more haunting similarities in the two great matches. That Pimlico match in '38 is the emotional center of the picture, the most artful racing movie Hollywood has ever done.
If Ross occasionally plays loose with the facts, he remains true to the core of the story, and many of the racetrack scenes evoke more sharply than ever before on film a sense of the surpassing grace and power of the running horse, the sound of rolling thunder of the hooves and a sense of the precarious, perilous nature of the jockeys' existence as they bound along hell-fired at 40 miles an hour, monkeys on a stick, wind-sheared and often screaming at each other in the din. For them, it is a world that can turn suddenly violent with the exploding crack of a cannon bone or under a runaway rogue. Never has this been captured more graphically than in the extraordinary sequence in which Seabiscuit's jockey, Red Pollard ( Tobey Maguire), is thrown off a bolting horse and dragged through the stable area, one foot caught in a stirrup, his broken body bouncing off posts and barns.
Hillenbrand's book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, was No. 1 in hardcover last year, and today it is back atop The New York Times best-seller list, giving it 69 weeks on the list, making it one of the most successful books on sports ever written. While it is well-organized and beautifully paced, with touches of lyrical writing throughout, surely the source of its appeal is that it is a wonderful story that also happens to be true, as warm and fuzzy as nonfiction can get without suggesting a collaboration of Horatio Alger and Sylvester Stallone.
Wisely, Ross organized his movie as Hillenbrand did her book, introducing the three main human characters early and then weaving them in and out of the story's narrative. Owner Charles Howard ( Jeff Bridges) goes from being a bicycle repairman in New York City at the turn of the century to an automobile dealer in California, rising to claim vast riches as the car replaces the horse. He decides to start a racing stable. Trainer Silent Tom Smith ( Chris Cooper), an old mustang breaker and horse whisperer, rides alone off the vanishing plains on a horse, builds a crackling fire and awaits his destiny. Howard finds him there among the tumbleweed and hires him as his trainer. Smith finds Seabiscuit, an underachiever himself, and sees something he likes, so Howard buys him.
All they need now is a jockey. Pollard, tossed in poverty, comes out of the rough-and-tumble tracks of the Great Northwest, where jockeys fought hand-to-hand on horseback, rode cheap horses in the afternoon and made whiskey money by getting their brains scrambled in saloon fights. A raconteur, he quotes Shakespeare and Emerson in the jock's room. Down but not out, blind in one eye, he one day runs into Smith. And Seabiscuit.